In the hyperbole and YA pomp-and-circumstance surrounding the release of Suzanne Collins’ third volume in the Hunger Games trilogy, it would be easy to overlook the release of a slight volume of prose, translated from the French, of a story crafted from the mind of an Afghan expatriate and; while understandable, it would also be equally unforgivable. Atiq Rahimi’s works are not so much as slight as they are distilled quintessences of stories, carefully crafted scenes of both physical and transcendent landscapes. Rahimi’s stories strip out the superfluous in both language and meaning, providing the reader with true abstracts of the time-and-place and the characters. In Earth & Ashes, the story of an older man who must travel with his grandson to the mines where his son (the boy’s father) works, in order to deliver tragic news, the political language that one might expect to inform the whole of the story’s context, the Russians invading Afghanistan, is supplanted by the realty that Dastaguir (the older man) understands: the immediacy of having his village bombed, his having to witness the destruction and survive it and, to try to make sense of what is only tritely explainable. Dastaguir’s world is reduced to a landscape that has been rendered unto rubble, colored by the dust of the road and the soot of the mining camp, a world he must still literally and figuratively negotiate to reach his son, Murad. Along the way, through his dreams, his recollections, through the power of storytelling itself (the story of the guard, the story of the Book of Kings… ) Dastaguir tells us the story of himself, which is not the story of a doddering old man given to distraction as would seem, but the narrative of a man facing the daunting prospect of having to re-write his future history, his future identity, by aggregating his grief:
“You don’t hear the rest of the shopkeeper’s word. Your thoughts pull you inward, to where your own misery lies. Which has your sorrow become? Tears? No, otherwise you’d cry. A sword? No, you haven’t wounded anyone yet. A bomb? You’re still living. You can’t describe your sorrow; it hasn’t taken shape yet. It hasn’t had a chance to show itself. If only it wouldn’t take shape at all. If only it would fall silent, be forgotten… It will be so, of course it will… As soon as you see Murad, your son… Where are you Murad?”
Last month, while I was on vacation in Maine I was able to receive a twitter feed even though my cell and internet signals were being sucked into some sort of AT&T Black Hole. One of the tweets was from @otherpress, promising advance copies of Earth & Ashes to twitterers who replied. I was extremely eager to take advantage of this offer because I had already read The Patience Stone in print and craved more of the elegant prose of Atiq Rahimi. There is a theatrically and poeticism to The Patience Stone that’s mesmerizing. However, when I read it last February, I had read it too fast! I wanted to re-read it again when I was alone and things were quiet so I could let the novel’s own rhythm set the pace; But I’m a wife and mother with a full time job and finding that alone/quiet time was proving to be rather difficult. So for the “re-read,” I opted to listen to the audiobook. This time there would be no skimming words! I borrowed a copy from Blackstone Audio, Inc. and listened to it prior to reading Earth & Ashes.
The Patience Stone (which is actually Atiq Rahimi’s second novel; but the first to be published in the U.S.) shares stylistic qualities with Earth & Ashes: the “word reduction” process (like wine reduction) that leaves the full flavor of the setting and the characters without the impurities; the limited venues that showcase the main actions (both external and transcendent;) the importance of storytelling and; the pathos of the main characters which, while by definition evoke pity or sadness, provides the core of the character’s transformation and should not be misconstrued as a weakness.
The Patience Stone is about a woman who is caring for her husband, who appears to be in a vegetative state. In the beginning of the novel, she repeats prayers pro-forma in the hope of aiding in her husband’s recovery. Eventually, as no change in his condition registers, she abandons the prayers and starts confiding, and later confessing, … things. The name of the novel comes from the practice of telling one’s secrets and worries to a black stone (the Kaaba or a miniature version.) When the stone can take no more, it explodes. In practice, the woman’s husband becomes a patience stone.
The setting, as identified in the epigram, “Somewhere in Afghanistan or elsewhere,” speaks to the theatricality and the universality of the novel, a level of abstraction flavored with the Middle-East. The action takes place in one room in a home; the woman sometimes goes off-stage; the woman’s off-stage and, interior lives are revealed through a series of monologues (ostensibly dialogues as she is speaking to her husband;) but by refusing to fix any of the place(s) or people with names, the author invites the reader to think outside of the (black-) box (theater) that he has constructed and focus on the woman’s drama as she reveals the complexity of her life that happens to belie who we think she is as a Middle-Eastern woman. Once again, as in Earth & Ashes, the story of the main character is told through their dreams, recollections and other stories and; once again, the character must re-write their story using their pathos as the building material.
I was somewhat conflicted about listening to the audio. Carolyn Seymour has a wonderfully rich and expressive, but decidedly British voice. There was a part of me that wondered if removing the Middle-Eastern sensibility from the voice was going too far in the abstraction process or; whether it added to the commitment of making the novel more universal. I also got a different sense of timing from the audio reading than I did from the print. I didn’t hear the rhythm of the breathing, the telling of the beads or; sense the time as measured by the mullahs calls to prayers as much as I imagined I did when I read it the first time. Carolyn Seymour’s pace was faster, though I didn’t miss any of the details. Whether in print or in audio, and regardless of the translator, Atiq Rahimi’s writing is beautiful and thought-provoking. Great things do come in small packages.